Student pretenders help nab predators

Anna Duszkiewicz

Online volunteers help cops go after people soliciting children for sex

Photo illustration by Abigail S. Fisher | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

A 34-year-old man pulled into the parking lot of a Wayne County Circle K gas station expecting to meet a young girl and have sex with her.

Instead he met police officers and became one of seven men arrested since January for soliciting a young girl he thought he met online for sex.

Jim Owens, director of the Law Enforcement Education Center at Kent State, has been bringing students down to a Wayne County police station since the beginning of the semester to observe as police officers catch sexual predators by posing as 14-year-old girls online.

The name of the station cannot be released because of the undercover nature of the operation.



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One Kent State student, who is also a non-sworn auxiliary member of this police department and whose name cannot be released, takes part in catching these predators.

She posed as the young girl the man at the local gas station thought he was meeting for sex.

“I only talked to him for an hour and four minutes, and he was on his way,” she said.

The sting

Dennis Felter, head of the police department’s Internet crime unit in Wayne County, said there are more predators out there than most people realize.

The sting operation is something the department does part time, usually on weekends, and Felter said it can be hard to keep up because so much time and paperwork goes into each case.

Since the program began in 2003, 93 arrests have been made.

There have been as many as four in one day.

Owens said he usually keeps participation confined to police academy students, although he has brought students from his classes down to observe the operations.

He said he wants to expose students to the realities of police work.

“It’s not like ‘COPS,'” he said. “I want them to see it for what it is from a patrol car to an investigative standpoint.”

Catching a predator

From small-scale operations such as the one in Wayne County to larger ones such as NBC’s Dateline special, “To Catch a Predator,” Internet sting operations have become popular in recent years – and for good reason.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001, 89 percent of sexual solicitations are made in chat rooms or via instant messaging, and one in five children between the ages 10-17 has been sexually solicited online.

Another study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in 1999 found that one in 33 youths received an “aggressive sexual solicitation” over a one-year period, meaning the predator called, wanted to meet, sent money, correspondence or gifts to the victim via the U.S. Postal Service.

According to the study, 77 percent of targeted youths were 14 or older, which is not an age normally thought to be targeted by pedophiles.

Felter was trained by the FBI to catch “Internet travelers” in Yahoo! chatrooms.

“The travelers are the guys who meet us online thinking we’re 14-year-old girls (and) then travel to meet us for sex,” he said.

Officers posing as minor girls go into a chat room and sit dormant.

“We don’t contact them ever,” Felter said. “That’s the golden rule. We show the predatory status of them coming after us.”

When contacted by these men, the officers make certain to use a non-suggestive, neutral tone in their online conversations with them.

They are asked about their sex lives and often receive explicit pictures and Webcam videos followed by repeated requests for sex.

Avery Zook, director of the sex offender treatment program at Portage Path Behavioral Health, said he thinks sting operations may be gaining popularity because they are so effective.

“I think this problem is a lot more prevalent than previously thought,” he said. “When police set up a sting operation and get hit on, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s out there.'”

All walks of life

Scruffy. Unemployed. Creepy.

Such adjectives may come to mind when picturing a sex offender.

However Felter said there is no such thing as a typical predator.

A wide variety of people are arrested, he said.

“When I first started this, I thought we were going to arrest a bunch of dirt bags,” he said. “It turns out we’ve only had one typical ‘dirt bag.'”

Some people arrested through the program have been a limousine driver, a Kent State student, the former head chef of the Cleveland Hilton Hotel and a millionaire who owned an airport construction business.

Felter said the biggest arrest was made in 2004 when an attendant of Air Force One solicited an undercover officer for sex, in which case the FBI and Secret Service got involved.

“It was found that he had flown with the grandchildren of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice,” Felter said. “They had to interview all of them to see if this guy ever touched them.”

While the suspect was waiting to make a court appearance he raped a 14-year-old girl at a motel in Virginia.

In the mind of the sex offender

Given the wide spectrum of offenders, a natural question may arise: Why do they do it?

That’s a complex question, Zook said, to which there are no simple answers.

“I think that’s one of those things that we have the least understanding about,” he said.

Zook said the predisposing factors vary from person to person.

It may begin with issues such as low self-esteem, heavy use of pornography or problems with alcohol or drugs.

“Sometimes it’s purely a sexual attraction to children,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a need for control. Maybe the offender feels unloved, desires to be loved and goes about getting that the wrong way.”

Zook said he doesn’t think anyone offends without having thought about it first.

The prospective offender has thoughts about offending, and in the case of an Internet sting operation, it becomes his or her opportunity to carry out the act.

Zook said he thinks there’s a general belief that all sexual offenders are going to re-offend.

“People need to lose the misconception that just because someone sexually offended a child he is going to offend every child he comes within 50 feet of. That is simply not accurate,” he said. “Most of them do not re-offend.”

What makes it difficult, Zook said, is there are offenders who do.

“Those are the ones we see in the news,” he said.

Zook said one of the mistakes people make is thinking laws alone can protect children.

“The law says sexual offenders can’t live within 1,000 feet of a school. Children are actually at a much higher risk in their own homes than they are with offenders living near a school.”

Zook said society sets up obstacles for one-time offenders who want to get their lives back on track.

One of the things that many men in Zook’s program are currently struggling with is finding employers who will hire them and finding a place to live.

“What we know is that if somebody doesn’t have the stability that comes with having an adequate job and adequate housing, they’re not as likely to make good decisions and their risk of re-offending actually goes up,” he said. “So out of our fears we actually make it more likely that the offenders are going to re-offend.”

Zook emphasized that he didn’t want to ‘go easy’ on offenders.

“What they do is very wrong,” he said. “I don’t want to minimize that at all. It hurts children tremendously. If the pendulum swings to the other side, where we’re not holding offenders accountable, that essentially means we’re not caring about our children. And that would be a great travesty. I think it’s absolutely important that we hold children’s innocence as a primary objective.”

He said it’s all about finding a middle ground.

“It’s a very difficult balance, but I think it certainly is possible,” he said.

Contact College of Arts and Sciences reporter Anna Duszkiewicz at [email protected].